Published in Economic Development

Pandemic slows momentum for West Michigan sports tourism

BY Sunday, December 20, 2020 04:40pm

Other than professional and high-level college sports, most athletic competition was sidelined on and off throughout the year, yet another industry casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has made life tough for the West Michigan Sports Commission, which focuses on marketing West Michigan as a sports tourism destination. Since March, the commission saw 71 sports events canceled because of COVID-19, equating to 32,242 lost hotel room nights. WMSC President Mike Guswiler reflects on what this does for his organization and when we might see sports return in full force to West Michigan.

It’s no mystery that 2020 was a costly disaster for the sports industry. How long will it feel the repercussions?

As we look at what happened in 2020 — and (the pandemic will) likely go into the first quarter of 2021 — there has been business that has been displaced. Event rights holders and national governing bodies have had events canceled. You look at the NCAA and March Madness as one example. What has been happening is kind of a snowball effect that these events that were lost are being kind of replaced in 2021. If you’re bidding on those events, you have to skip a cycle. So 2021 is going to be a challenging year from that perspective. 

Mike Guswiler, president of the West Michigan Sports Commission COURTESY PHOTO

Are many organizations and governing bodies at least getting dates on the calendar with the idea that it would be easier to cancel if health conditions don’t improve?

To put it simply, no, they’re not. We’re holding different virtual sales opportunity events, talking to clients, trying to learn where they are sitting. That’s the challenge. They just don’t know. Yes, they’re planning but with hesitation. They’re not moving forward and signing contracts and identifying locations because none of us really know.

Is enthusiasm in sports down in general? 

From a sports perspective, I think we’re hungry for it. Coming off the spring and the initial shutdown, once the governor lifted the stay-at-home orders, we got the Art Van Sports Complex (which WMSC operates) up and running. We put a lot of protocols in place and made sure our staff was safe and made sure spectators and teams felt comfortable coming there. We hit equal numbers of participating travel teams as comparable to 2019 once we got running. That told me that people were tired of being cooped up in their house. They wanted to get out. 

How important is it that West Michigan’s long-standing minor league sports organizations survive this, and can they?

I don’t know their overall financial situation to weather the storm. I think once we can open up and once we can see the minor league sports and major league sports get going, the fan base will be there for them and they’ll survive. We want to show that we are a sports destination and we need our minor league teams to really be there to have great success on the court, on the field, on the ice that we can point to and kind of brag about our city being a great sports destination. So we have representatives from the Whitecaps and the Griffins on the board to kind of help to talk about (West Michigan) as a sports destination.

Have the restrictions in Michigan made our state a tougher sell for sports? One example we’ve seen in opportunity lost is a handful of AAU basketball tournaments relocated to Indiana because they weren’t allowed to compete in Michigan.

You just feel like you don’t have the same momentum. We don’t see the same number of RFPs out there and people planning for the immediate future. With some of the varying restrictions state-to-state, we have already seen these youth basketball tournaments turn to our neighboring states because they can participate there. Right or wrong, I think we all have to be careful and do our part to bring the case count down and not spread the virus. At the same time, we have to look at our economy and how we keep that stable and how we prepare ourselves to be ready when it opens. 

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